By ANDREA JUTSON
Interviewing someone who is both an actress and an author, you are effectively talking to someone who lives in a fantasy world. Someone who puts on a face and massages words for a living.
Any journalist knows the type – they inhabit every council chamber and MP’s office in the country. And just like the most seasoned politicians, Barbara Ewing knows how to lead a conversation, and how to give nothing away.
Despite her effusiveness and the wonderfully dramatic hand gestures, she won’t tell me her age.
‘All actresses lie about their age.’
This is after several attempts to redirect the stream and ask how long ago it was that Ewing left New Zealand for the UK, where she still lives. Suffice it to say that she now has a large dollop of mushy peas mixed in with her fush and chups.
When asked where home now lies, Ewing is equally coy. She comes back here, she says, whenever she can. She has family here, and a holiday home in the Bay of Islands, where she’s just come from to begin the whirl of publicity. She sighs when she compares the blissful beachside sun with the grey isles she’s bound to return to. But home is a loaded question…
‘A very loaded question,’ she agrees, and doesn’t answer.
England is where most of Ewing’s novels are set, including her latest, eighteenth-century art drama The Fraud, but she hasn’t forgotten her Kiwi roots. Having studied Maori at Victoria University in Wellington, (at some unspecified time in the past), she is very fond of throwing in a mention of our Antipodean past in her books.
A Maori healer appeared in her previous novel, The Mesmerist (2007), and The Fraud contains many references to our beloved Captain Cook. ‘If I wasn’t a New Zealander I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned him,’ she says.
A Dangerous Vine (1999) was set in 1950s Wellington. Ewing uses this novel as evidence that the old adage ‘setting a book in New Zealand spells death overseas’ doesn’t always hold water. It achieved the greatest success of all her books, placing her on the longlist for the coveted Orange Prize for female authors.
Ironically given her choice of subject matter, Ewing failed history at university because it didn’t contain enough of our national past.
‘We were studying the kings and queens of England. I thought “Why aren’t we studying New Zealand?”
‘But now you can’t get me out of the British Library.’
It takes Ewing a year to research her historical novels, which is pretty much her full-time job these days. She says she likes to describe herself as an actress and author still, but with publishers’ contracts to fill, there’s not a lot of time left for acting.
No matter; a constant theme running through her books is the thespian world. The Mesmerist relied on stagecraft, with two actresses as the main characters, first popular novel The Actresses was naturally about her chosen career, and The Fraud is all about putting on a character.
Protagonist Francesca di Vecellio, real name Grace Marshall, is forced to adopt the persona of an Italian housekeeper by her ambitious artist brother Philip. For most of her life she has to speak in an Italian accent, as he does, in order to win some European cachet in the snobbish art world.
Meanwhile Grace is also forced to hide her own exceptional artistic gifts, thanks to her brother’s jealousy. The deception culminates in a great fraud, where Grace attempts to pass off one of her own secret works as a new Rembrandt, ruining several lives in the process.
The underlying moral of the story is that artists must lose a part of themselves in order to achieve greatness. Does this mean that Ewing has destroyed part of her life? is the most obvious question.
‘No, because I’m still Barbara when I’m an actress, but Philip pretends he’s not – it destroys him,’ she says.
But is it true that success equals losing a part of yourself?
‘I think it’s a very interesting thing to investigate,’ she hedges.
It is true that Ewing has made some sacrifices. When she emigrated all those years ago, she knew no one in England, and found it an alien world.
‘My toothbrush froze,’ she says. ‘That’s what I always remember.’
Making a living through acting back then was precarious, as it is now. Ewing’s writing career began when the parts began to dry up, as they almost inevitably do except for the likes of Judi Dench or Maggie Smith.
‘I began writing because I got older and the men got all the good parts,’ Ewing explains.
‘So I thought I’d better look for something else to do. Glenda Jackson said she wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring so she could be offered the part of a mother or a wife, and became an MP.’
She admits to writing women characters that would play well on screen, but not that she would ever play them. She would, she says, be more likely to play their mothers. While someone bought The Actresses as a TV series, it was never made, to Ewing’s disappointment.
The strength and modernity of her female characters got her into a stand-up row with some English historians at a literary convention.
‘One told me I had no idea what it was like back then,’ she says in disbelief.
‘But human emotions are essentially the same throughout history. Look at Shakespeare, look at how popular Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was, even though he used the original language.’
Ewing clearly comes across as someone who doesn’t much care what others think. As such, her books don’t always have the classical Hollywood ending or breeziness. She is disapproving of Jane Austen’s avoidance of the darker issues going on in her own time, when the Napoleonic Wars and slave trade caused suffering to millions.
‘In Mansfield Park, the owner of the estate got all his wealth through slave labour in the West Indies,’ Ewing says.
‘And she made him a sympathetic character.’
Such issues are not glossed over in Ewing’s books. The Fraud is an emotional concrete-mixer from start to finish, despite the occasional lighter moment, such as when Miss Proud from Rosetta re-appears in this story.
‘I think that, on the whole, they are much truer to life than a happy ending,’ says Ewing.
That really sums up this meeting. As her books make plain, Ewing loves actors, but has no time for frauds.
Andrea Jutson is a South Auckland crime writer, reviewer and journalist. Her most recent book was Senseless, Random House.